By: Hudson Phillips.
How much does the “right idea” matter?
If you’re writing a script with the goal of attracting a manager, producer, actor, or anyone in Hollywood, I would say it matters A LOT. Maybe even more than the quality of the writing (but not much more – you still have to pull that concept off). But Hollywood is looking for “poster-ready” or “high-concept” ideas. That is, you can pitch it in two sentences, and whoever hears it already imagines the poster (and the trailer and the star and the box office returns).
Yesterday I read about a film that was announced called The Out-Laws about a bank teller who meets his fiancé’s parents for the first time and starts to believe that they are the masked thieves who robbed his bank. Now, you may think that’s a lame idea, but you can see the poster right? And the trailer? And start to predict the gags? Meet the Parents meets Point Break!
I eat this kind of stuff up because those are the kinds of films I want to write. But maybe you’re writing a drama. Does the same thing apply? Let’s look at a couple of recent Oscar-nominated films and see how they did at “high-concept” drama.
- Nomadland – After a woman loses her husband and job, she takes up with a group of modern-day nomads and lives a minimalist life out of a van.
- Sound of Metal – A punk rock drummer must search for new meaning in his life after he loses his hearing.
Still pretty high-concept right? A little more “execution dependent,” but each sets up a clear dilemma that is going to be explored throughout the film. You can imagine some of the issues these characters are going to have to face. You can even relate to them just from a one-sentence description!
Coming up with a memorable idea is both necessary and REALLY HARD.
Terry Rossio, the writer of Pirates of the Caribbean (among many of your childhood favorites) says, “Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months — sometimes years — are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.”
Writer and blogger Scott Myers says “If you write a spec script based upon the first story idea that comes into your mind, that script likely won’t sell. Why? Because almost assuredly, it is not a strong story concept. I believe the story concept may represent up to half of the value of a screenplay to a potential buyer.”
And I think he’s right. Half of your job is to come up with a great concept and the other half of your job is to turn that concept into a great screenplay. So how do you do it?
- Push to 10. This is a rule I apply to everything from screenplay titles to character names to set-piece ideas. Come up with 10 ideas before you decide on one. The reason this is important is that our first ideas always suck! It’s not our fault. We all consume the same stuff so we’re going to regurgitate the same stuff. It takes work to be creative. It takes quantity to get to quality.
- Terry Rossio, on his Wordplayer blog, shares his favorite tip: “Good film concepts tend to utilize elements that already exist within the awareness of the audience. Consider the individual elements in the film Liar, Liar: A kid (I get that) makes a birthday wish (okay) that his father, a lying untrustworthy lawyer (that’s easy to believe) has to tell the truth (uh-huh) for twenty-four hours. Each of these elements is familiar — they already exist in my head, ready for the filmmaker to manipulate. The overall concept can then be easily promoted, marketed, or advertised, as there exists in the audience an awareness that can be reached. (This may be what executives mean when they say they want something new and different, but also time-tested and proven.)”
- Derek Thompson, in his fantastic and highly recommended book, Hit Makers plays up this same idea: “New and different but also time-tested and proven,” “bold, but instantly comprehensible: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” or… the same but different. He says “The trick is learning to frame your new ideas as tweaks of old ideas, to mix a little fluency with a little disfluency—to make your audience see the familiarity behind the surprise.” and “To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar.”
Now, what we’re not talking about is chasing current fads or writing simply to sell something. That just leads to stale scripts that lack passion or personality. But, I also know that you need to do everything you can to stack the deck on your script if you want a chance at making a living at this.
One last exercise. Before you decide on your next screenplay concept, come up with 100 other ideas. I know that sounds like a lot, but spread them out. 10 ideas each day for 10 days or 3 ideas a day for a month. You’ll surprise yourself with how quickly they’ll come to you. Here are some brainstorming techniques:
- Read news stories and put your own spin on them. “A Billionaire goes into outer space but his ship is hijacked?”
- Take two of your favorite movies and smash them together. “You’ve Got Mail meets John Wick“
- Take a favorite movie and swap genres. “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days as a horror movie.”
- Consume non-fiction. Find your stories in history, science, and philosophy. “The story of JFK as told through the eyes of his dog, Pushinka.”
- Tap into your personal experiences. Former lawyer, John Grisham made a career out of going down day-job rabbit holes.
- Start with already existing Intellectual Property in the public domain. Can you put a unique spin on a popular fairy tale?
- Ask yourself “what if?” “What if all the men in the world started mysteriously dying off?”
You don’t want to spend years developing a script only to find that it’s un-pitchable (or the dreaded “execution dependent.”)! The “right idea” however, is like a skeleton key designed to open the doors of Hollywood gatekeepers. The writing journey is too long and painful to spend on the wrong idea.
Hudson Phillips is a screenwriter, producer, and founder of ScriptBlast.com.
His new book, Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Write a Character-Driven Screenplay that Connects Emotionally with your Audience, is now available on Amazon.
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